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Spin City: The Complete Season 1
It was pretty big news when Michael J. Fox announced his return to series television for the 1996-97 season with Spin City. It was even bigger news since his Family Ties creator/producer Gary David Goldberg was attached to the new project, and it was also one of the first television productions for the then-fledgling television unit of DreamWorks. Sadly, it was even bigger news four years later, during the fairly successful run of Spin City, that Fox announced he had fallen victim to Parkinson's Disease. His duties on the show were drastically cut back that year, leading ultimately to his being replaced by Charlie Sheen. The show never really regained its footing and left the air after a little over another season.
There's therefore a sort of bittersweet quality to revisiting Spin City's first season now. Fox would probably not be the first person to spring to mind when thinking of someone exceptionally gifted in physical comedy, but Spin is full of wonderful moments for the actor, from somersaulting onto a bed, to jumping in one graceful motion up onto a seat on a mantle, and it's a more than a little sad to see things like that now given Fox's current health context. If Fox's overly mannered delivery style, full of its halts, hand motions and other "business," can be a little annoying at times, his grace, pratfalls and sheer physicality here are really rather amazing, but do tend to color the proceedings with a certain poignance that the original broadcasts certainly did not intend.
Spin City was still obviously finding its voice throughout much of this premiere season, though it is often sharp as a tack right from the get-go. The basic setup is sound, with Fox starring as Deputy Mayor of New York City Mike Flaherty, a cocky, sure-of-himself glad-hander managing not just a bunch of misfit office underlings, but also his dunderheaded superior, the Mayor (Barry Bostwick in a delightful portrayal). For the first thirteen episodes, there's also equal weight given to his long-term relationship with his reporter girlfriend (Carla Gugino). It takes about half of the first season for the supporting players' characters to come into relatively clear focus, but on the whole they're a well-defined bunch of comedy staples, each with their own peculiar quirks.
Chief among the supporting players is the always fun Richard Kind as press secretary Paul, the easy mark of the crew and frequent butt of practical jokes. Michael Boatman does some excellent work as gay minority affairs guru Carter, and Alan Ruck serves as his nemesis, very straight and very sexist deputy mayor Stuart. The distaff side of the office is represented by man-hungry Nikki (Connie Britton), rather shamelessly modeled on Roz from Frasier. While none of these characters rises to the threshold of some of sitcom's stellar supporters, like Frasier's own Niles or Daphne, or Cheers' Norm or Cliff, the actors are all extremely personable and over the course of this first season create some memorable moments. Gugino, who evidently left of her own accord after 12 episodes, is a charming foil for Fox in the opening dozen episodes of the series, bringing equal parts spunk and sexiness to reporter Ashley. In fact the reveal of Mike and Ashley's relationship is one of the biggest laughs of the opening episode. She's given a rather unconvincing explanation for her absence in the 13th episode, which nonetheless leads into a very funny examination of Flaherty's inability to emotionally let her go.
There are also some great passing bits with the Mayor's inability to speak intelligently or intelligibly (remind you of any Presidents we've had lately?), as well as some starcrossed love affairs that boomerang around the office. Boatman does some great work as he defaults to the ear everyone wants to tell their troubles to, and the shoulder that everyone wants to cry on. "I am so sick of straight people!," he exclaims at the end of one episode where the love triangles have gotten particularly pointed.
Spin City is in fact quite notable for its emphasis on gay rights and issues, something that is repeatedly at the forefront of several episodes, starting with the pilot, where the Mayor's off-the-cuff gaffe about not wanting to attend a Gay Pride parade sets a whole series of plot points in motion. It probably seems passé now, more than a decade later, but in 1996 this was fairly new stuff for a mainstream television sitcom to explore, and Spin City is to be commended for the unflinching, yet always humorous, way it approached the subject.
The show is also notable for its more filmic camera style, something that director Tommy Schlamme goes into in one of the informative commentaries that augment the set. While the actual nuts and bolts of how they managed to get the many tracking shots through what are supposed to be long hallways is kind of funny (there was actually only about 18 feet which had to be constantly rejiggered on the fly as scenes were being filmed), the "you are there" approach to Spin City gives the show a visceral feel that is lacking from a lot of the more static, three-camera setups that have been a staple of sitcom filming style since I Love Lucy. Spin City also championed the shorter-scene, epigrammatic style that has been the staple of sitcoms for the last several years, notably in co-creator Bill Lawrence's subsequent Scrubs.
While Spin City is probably not going to make anyone's "best ever sitcom" list, it provides a number of heartfelt laughs throughout its first season, and remains a remarkable testament to the very unique talents that Michael J. Fox brought to the television medium.
The full frame image is generally excellent, though occasionally was surprisingly a bit on the soft side. Colors, saturation and contrast are excellent, with no noticeable damage through any of the first season episodes.
The standard stereo DD 2.0 soundtrack is also completely typical television fare, with acceptable separation, but excellent fidelity. No dropouts or other damage was heard in any episode.
Several nice extras, mostly commentaries, dot the landscape here. The pilot features two exceptional commentaries, one by co-creators Goldberg and Lawrence and the other by Schlamme, with other episodes featuring commentaries by series regulars Boatman, Alexander Chaplin, Richard Kind, Alan Ruck, and, in one instance, Michael J. Fox. There are also some nice contemporary interviews with Fox and other cast members, as well as a vintage 1996 Paley Seminar featuring Fox and Goldberg. The most touching extra is a brief featurette on Fox's work toward developing a cure for Parkinson's. I defy you not to choke up while you watch it.
Spin City was still finding its voice during this trial first season. Fox is delightful throughout, and surprisingly physical at times, and is surrounded by a colorful supporting cast. While not consistently A-level, there's enough here that overall the show is Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet